By Leonidas Donskis
The year 2009 marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even taking a short look backward, 1989 appears to have been the year that was nothing short of a miracle.World War II, with its sinister and seemingly insurmountable divisions within Europe, was over nearly overnight leaving no trace of the disbelief, despair and hopelessness that devastated Eastern and Central Europe for more than forty years. Instead, Europe was filled with joy and the sense of solidarity.
As Adam Michnik, a hero of the Solidarity movement and a towering figure among public intellectuals and dissenters of Central Europe, recently noticed, it is quite tempting nowadays to assume the role of having been the then leading force and the major inspiration behind the historic fall of totalitarianism in Europe. Therefore, it was with sound reason that Michnik called the year 1989 the annus mirabilis, the miraculous year.
In the United States, it is taken for granted that it was nothing other than the economic power of America that stripped the former Soviet Union of its potential, inflicting on it a humiliating defeat in the Cold War. German politicians would proudly assert that their wise and patient Ostpolitik was a decisive factor in this historic struggle, rather than the direct force and bellicose stance of America.
In Poland, nobody doubts that Pope John Paul II has come to delegitimize Communism, both as a world system and a major rival ideology, whereas the Solidarity movement dealt a fatal blow to the mortally wounded Soviet system showing that the working class people can revolt against the Working Class State and deprive it of the remains of its legitimacy.
In the Baltic states, it is widely assumed, and not without reason, that the living chain of the joined hands of Baltic people in 1989, which was followed by the exceptional role of Lithuania as the first rebellious and breakaway republic, also played a role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism in Europe, the role that was much too obvious to need emphasis.
All these kinds of reasoning and arguments are more or less correct. If a unique combination of forces and inspirations had not been possible, 1989 would never have become the decisive year that changed history beyond recognition. Yet one more human factor exists that seems to have been overlooked in Eastern and Central Europe. No matter how much passion and controversy this factor and its mention would arouse, I have to spell out its first and last names. This is Mikhail Gorbachev.
Needless to say, Gorbachev was bound to become a sharp dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe, probably nearly to the same extent as the assessment of 1968. What looked for a Western European intellectual like the Grand March of History stretching from the Latin Quarter of Paris to the rest of the globe, as the character Franz from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being has it, was a tragedy and the jackboot trampling on the face of the human being, in the way another character of the novel, Franz’s mistress Sabina, a Czech artist in exile, describes it. Socialism and a promise of freedom as a theory in the West proved a horrible practice in the East in that same year 1968. Memory politics, as well as opposing memory regimes, still divides Europe.
The same applies to Mikhail Gorbachev. A regrettable liar, coward and hypocrite in the eyes of Lithuanians, who suffered most from the bestiality and brutality of Soviet troops in January 1991, Gorbachev is highly esteemed and cherished in the unified Germany, nearly as a saintly figure. On a closer look, however, he is more of a tragic figure straight out of a Shakespeare play. Equally vilified in the Baltic countries and in Russia itself – in the latter with its increasing nostalgia for the power and international prestige of the former USSR that is far beyond present Russia, Gorbachev is blamed for the collapse of the empire – he became a litmus test case of historical memory and political sensibilities.
Yet the fact is that Gorbachev, no matter if a man of half-truth and of an inexorably doomed attempt to humanize totalitarianism, as the Lithuanian poet and literary scholar Tomas Venclova has labeled him, proved far less driven by irrational impulses of power and blood-thirst than one could expect from the cornered head of the most dangerous and unpredictable state in the world. True, he misinterpreted nationalism of the occupied nations and misrepresented the real state of affairs of the USSR. More than that, he found himself totally confused and lost at a crossroads of the state whose very existence violated justice and all modern sensibilities.
And here comes my final point. Gorbachev willy-nilly allowed himself to be seen globally as a weak and confused individual, which would have been unthinkable with his predecessors and successors. If anyone doubts that, let him or her try to imagine Yuri Andropov or Vladimir Putin in Gorbachev’s shoes, let alone other ghosts of the Kremlin. For not finding a better word for this phenomenon, I would call the reason behind Gorbachev’s unwillingness to respond to his failure in the Baltics with massacre if not decency and humanism, then at least human weakness and moral intuition that may have suggested to him that his story was over. Another epoch had begun, an epoch where he didn’t belong. If one is able to step out from the powerful position and office without causing bloodshed and casualties in retaliation, it is a sign of decency and dignity.
Sometimes it is worth celebrating not only the courage and resolve of those on our side, but the human weakness and confusion of our adversaries as well.
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